The Blank Page

The blank page is an endangered place.

It’s like the silent room, the empty space, the quiet moment. Look around your desk – is there one piece of paper that hasn’t got some important note, or scribble, even if just doodle, on it? Look at your digital desktop – even worse? Even if all your files and other miscellanea have been tidied and hidden away into their appropriate folders, is the desktop a blank space, or have you filled it with some nice picture, perhaps a snapshot of your cat, or a pleasant sunset. 

(having said that, I always change my desktop image to suit the season or current personal mood, so I’m hardly one to talk, and I invariably do it to create the illusion of 3-dimenstional space as well as stillness or restfulness. A blank white computer screen hurts the eyes)

The point is, is that we don’t tend to leave ourselves empty spaces for things to happen. In fact, we increasingly are made to avoid the blank page. This is particularly so in the digital environment. Not directly by design, but because we are constantly being pressured to fill it in the name of creativity or expressing yourself, or sharing and communicating – apps, add-ons, personas, photos, widgets, all in the name of personalisation. And then there are all sorts of incomings like emails and tweets. 

And Auto-completion. You want to do a search on “cats” – you go to Google and start typing in “c…” and it starts giving you ten other “c…’s” that it thinks you might want. Even if you get as far as “cat” without interruption, you’re immediately being suggested ten other possible potential contexts you might like for your “cats”. It’s helping you finish your sentence. It’s making it easy for you. It’s also showing you what other people are searching on about cats – bringing up the ten most popular searches on that topic.

Yes, it can be argued that auto-completion supports serendipity and “unplanned information encounters”, but isn’t it what also doing is taking away your own initiative, your free will to decide and make errors and flounder around for yourself, even? It doesn’t allow you to stop and pause and reconsider what it is your really want to search on. It’s not allowing you to be puzzled, stumped, uncertain or indecisive. I know there are strong-willed individuals who ignore autofill and just keep on doggedly doing their own thing (some smart people even go to Preferences and turn it off!) but most of us fall into the easiness of letting someone else doing the thinking for us. 

I was reading over an journal article in the train the other day, on creativity and the necessity for uncertainty and ambiguity for a creative process. The author was discussing the idea in relation to the idea that fast access to information in research denies people the time to really think about what it is they are exploring; but it made me think about the blank white piece of paper or canvas used in painting, and the indecision, anxiety or even fear it can evoke in the painter facing it, about to mark it with paint or chalk. I’ve observed this so often, especially with students, especially with beginners – the sometimes almost paralytic state that comes over them, when asked to start producing. “I don’t know what to do” is the cry, “I don’t know where to start!”. 

I remember the first time I was really confronted with this phenomenon. It was my first real mural commission, a huge blank space, a 48 sq.m white wall in an empty chapel that had only just been built. I remember being taken in to see it and being utterly overwhelmed by what I was being expected to fill, on my own, with just paintbrushes and paint. It wasn’t even that I only had two weeks and that I didn’t even yet have any tools. It was just the vastness, white emptiness looming over me, silent, flat, and unforgiving. I kept feeling like I was falling over backwards.  I wrote in the notes that I kept at the time that I felt constantly confused and helpless, and that each day’s painting 

“began in depression, moved into confidence and satisfaction, became concentrated, then obsessed, into form and darkness, into dissatisfaction and annoyance, then calmness and escape”

as the daylight faded. In between there were moments or even minutes of paralysis when I had to forcibly will myself move and put something, even a tiny, pale stroke upon the wall. It was a relief to go home yet I would lie awake during the night both frightened of the following day, yet eager to get back there again and repeat the cycle of fear, confidence and obsession. In the end, I felt drained but fulfilled. In the face of this form and medium of creative process, admittedly extreme, the term “uncertainty” does seem rather an understatement. 

The article I was reading goes on to say that “diversity, collaboration, fluidity, fuzziness and emergent thinking” (in other words, opportunity for lots of choice) are all central to creativity; but nowhere does the author suggest the conditions for them to flourish. Emergent thinking in particular needs to emerge from somewhere: may creatives call this place the wellspring of their creativity. Simone Weil say it comes from “grace”, an overcoming of the gravity of everyday life. And that you may need blank mind to go with it. And that the space should stay blank for a while, like the visual equivalent of a moment of silence. Then comes receptivity that allows for grace. 

The vacuum or void is a step too far, I think, beyond uncertainty, for the overabundant information highway that is our modern technological path. It can fill our external world with a virtual one, and draws us away from generating much our of our own internal one. It can hide from us, our own inner blankness, when it comes to creativity or initiative. Perhaps the completely blank space is too much like emptiness for many people. Doctors and psychotherapists will tell you it can be a dangerous place that leads to depression. But it’s worth considering what this, even if you are not religiously-inclined:

 

If thou could`st empty all thyself of self,
Like to a shell dishabited,
Then might He find thee on the ocean shelf,
And say, `This is not dead`,
And fill thee with Himself instead.

But thou art all replete with very thou
And hast such shrewd activity,
That when He comes, He says, `This is enow
Unto itself – `twere better let it be,
It is so small and full, there is no room for me.` 

Thomas Browne (1605-1682)

Now compare this with these words from Simone Weil:

“Grace fills empty spaces but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it, and it is grace itself which makes this void” 

The value of emptiness and the blank page is underestimated. Not by the poets, though.


God help us to live slowly:
To move simply:
To look softly:
To allow emptiness:
To let the heart create for us.
Amen

 Michael Leunig

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